The Digital Boys Club

The status of diversity on the Net

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Newt Gingrich's cynical lip service to techno-democracy not withstanding, it seems the demographics of the Internet are slowly changing, though the possibility of true diversity online is pretty far off.

According to a recent Census Bureau report, 62 percent of the richest 25 percent of US households have home computers compared to a measly 6.8 percent of the poorest 25 percent of US households. The divide splits right down racial lines as well: for Asians and Pacific Islanders, 36 percent of households have computers; whites 28 percent; Latinos 12 percent; and African-Americans 9.5 percent. But amidst all of this division, it's encouraging to note that the Internet gender gap has substantially narrowed in the last year: Studies by Matrix and SRI put the percentage of women online at around 30 percent of users, up from 20 percent just a year ago.

Commenting on these statistics in a speech to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication this past August, Adam Clayton Powell, III of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center predicted that cheaper, more powerful computers will soon infiltrate all segments of society, just as the now ubiquitious television set did 30 years ago. The real issue at stake in the gap between the information rich and poor, according to Powell, is education. Without it the interactivity so hyped by multimedia developers and Internet profiteers will remain the privilege of the few who possess the know-how to produce content.

Powell believes cyberspace will eventually reflect the diversity of US society only if marginalized groups create content for the diverse audience that will eventually arrive there. But it's going to take more than Powell's amorphous vision to get around the nitty gritty barriers to universal access. Organizations like the Society for Electronic Access and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, among others, are strategizing how to redistribute info-tech wealth, and grassroots initiatives are sprouting all the time. One promising development is Access for All, a coalition of community television and radio producers, media art centers, public computer networks, and public library advocates. The group, in conjuction with the Independent Film & Video Monthly, is planning a series of public forums on new technologies

Original to Utne Reader Online, September 1995.